FONTANA, Calif. —Juan Pablo Montoya is well aware NASCAR veteran Mark Martin leads the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship heading into today's 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.
It just doesn't feel that way.
When Montoya looks at the standings, it's not Martin's name that jumps out but three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who lurks just 18 points behind Martin — and 33 points ahead of Montoya — heading into a stretch the native Californian has turned into his own personal springboard to the title.
Johnson has won three times at California, including a victory last fall that propelled him to his record-tying third consecutive championship. He's even better at Charlotte and Martinsville, the next two stops, winning 11 times in 31 combined starts.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Johnson has been so dominant during this stretch that other drivers find themselves adjusting their expectations.
Montoya isn't necessarily concerned about beating Johnson today — the two drivers will start alongside each other in the second row behind pole sitter Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle — so much as staying within striking distance.
"I think last week (at Kansas), this week and probably Martinsville are the three tracks I look forward to trying not to lose as many points as I can against Jimmie," Montoya said. "The way I see it is if you can go through those three races without getting yourself out of reach of Jimmie, you'll be fine."
Sticking close to Johnson isn't easy, especially in California. He's never finished worse than 16th at the 2-mile oval and hasn't missed the Top 10 in three years.
Hamlin, who begins today's race sixth in the standings behind Martin, admitted there's a bit of an "uh-oh" factor seeing Johnson's name so close to the top.
"I think a lot of it has to do with (the fact that) Jimmie has come from further back over the last few years to win the title," he said. "Being that he's this close to the lead at this point I think everyone is kind of threatened by it."
Yet this season, things might be different.
When Johnson led 271 laps while winning easily at Dover two weeks ago, it seemed as if his patented championship charge was starting a little early.
Instead, it stalled — by Johnson's lofty standards anyway — at Kansas.
Johnson appeared to have the best car in the field early in the race before a decision to take four tires, while the other leaders took two started a cycle that seemed to keep him stuck in the bottom of the top 10. He finished ninth while Martin finished two spots ahead to extend his lead from 10 to 18 points.
Sure, it wasn't much, but for the other 11 drivers desperately looking for any chink in Johnson's armor, it'll do.
"I think those guys are going to have to slip a little bit in order for somebody to excel," Biffle said. "Finishing ninth last week was an indication that they had some kind of issue during the race. I know ninth is not terrible, but for their standards or people trying to gain points on them, ninth will allow (other Chasers) to gain points."
It wasn't the first time this year his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team — normally so coolly efficient — has made a questionable call. Johnson ran out of gas in the final laps at Michigan earlier this year and has five finishes of 30th or worse. He had three such finishes last year.
"We have been a little frustrated with leading a lot of laps early and then at the end, it slipping through our fingers for whatever reason," Johnson said. "We've had a handful of those this year... we need to close."
Nobody's been better at it over the last three years, though NASCAR's decision to move the second California race from Labor Day weekend to the middle of the Chase has put an added strain on Johnson's already crowded schedule.
He spent the early part of the week visiting with families in his hometown of El Cajon who are living in Habitat for Humanity house his foundation helped build. Then it was on to his annual golf tournament, where he was joined by a several Cup drivers, other professional athletes and some Hollywood types as they raised more than $500,000 for his foundation.
The ability to give back is one of the benefits of the job. He allows, however, that the spotlight doesn't make it easy.
"I can certainly let different aspects of this weekend creep into my mind and put more pressure on me," he said. "I have always done a good job of trying to keep it simple and just look at it as another race."
Even if it's not.
Johnson does little to hide the fact he loves dominating in his own backyard, at perhaps the one track where fans wearing No. 48 T-shirts outnumber all others. Of course, he wants to put on a show for them. He just tries not to think about it.
"It's a good race for us in the Chase," he said. "All of those (other) things, I try to push that out of my mind."